11 April 2015

Opening Pandora’s box

Should some conversations be suppressed?

Are there ideas which could prove so incendiary, and so provocative, that it would be better to shut them down?

Should some concepts be permanently locked into a Pandora’s box, lest they fly off and cause too much chaos in the world?

As an example, consider this oft-told story from the 1850s, about the dangers of spreading the idea of that humans had evolved from apes:

It is said that when the theory of evolution was first announced it was received by the wife of the Canon of Worcester Cathedral with the remark, “Descended from the apes! My dear, we will hope it is not true. But if it is, let us pray that it may not become generally known.”

More recently, there’s been a growing worry about spreading the idea that AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) could become an apocalyptic menace. The worry is that any discussion of that idea could lead to public hostility against the whole field of AGI. Governments might be panicked into shutting down these lines of research. And self-appointed militant defenders of the status quo might take up arms against AGI researchers. Perhaps, therefore, we should avoid any public mention of potential downsides of AGI. Perhaps we should pray that these downsides don’t become generally known.

tumblr_static_transcendence_rift_logoThe theme of armed resistance against AGI researchers features in several Hollywood blockbusters. In Transcendence, a radical anti-tech group named “RIFT” track down and shoot the AGI researcher played by actor Johnny Depp. RIFT proclaims “revolutionary independence from technology”.

As blogger Calum Chace has noted, just because something happens in a Hollywood movie, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen in real life too.

In real life, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczinski was so fearful about the future destructive potential of technology that he sent 16 bombs to targets such as universities and airlines over the period 1978 to 1995, killing three people and injuring 23. Kaczinski spelt out his views in a 35,000 word essay Industrial Society and Its Future.

Kaczinki’s essay stated that “the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race”, defended his series of bombings as an extreme but necessary step to attract attention to how modern technology was eroding human freedom, and called for a “revolution against technology”.

Anticipating the next Unabombers

unabomber_ely_coverThe Unabomber may have been an extreme case, but he’s by no means alone. Journalist Jamie Bartlett takes up the story in a chilling Daily Telegraph article “As technology swamps our lives, the next Unabombers are waiting for their moment”,

In 2011 a new Mexican group called the Individualists Tending toward the Wild were founded with the objective “to injure or kill scientists and researchers (by the means of whatever violent act) who ensure the Technoindustrial System continues its course”. In 2011, they detonated a bomb at a prominent nano-technology research centre in Monterrey.

Individualists Tending toward the Wild have published their own manifesto, which includes the following warning:

We employ direct attacks to damage both physically and psychologically, NOT ONLY experts in nanotechnology, but also scholars in biotechnology, physics, neuroscience, genetic engineering, communication science, computing, robotics, etc. because we reject technology and civilisation, we reject the reality that they are imposing with ALL their advanced science.

Before going any further, let’s agree that we don’t want to inflame the passions of would-be Unabombers, RIFTs, or ITWs. But that shouldn’t lead to whole conversations being shut down. It’s the same with criticism of religion. We know that, when we criticise various religious doctrines, it may inflame jihadist zeal. How dare you offend our holy book, and dishonour our exalted prophet, the jihadists thunder, when they cannot bear to hear our criticisms. But that shouldn’t lead us to cowed silence – especially when we’re aware of ways in which religious doctrines are damaging individuals and societies (by opposition to vaccinations or blood transfusions, or by denying female education).

Instead of silence (avoiding the topic altogether), what these worries should lead us to is a more responsible, inclusive, measured conversation. That applies for the drawbacks of religion. And it applies, too, for the potential drawbacks of AGI.

Engaging conversation

The conversation I envisage will still have its share of poetic effect – with risks and opportunities temporarily painted more colourfully than a fully sober evaluation warrants. If we want to engage people in conversation, we sometimes need to make dramatic gestures. To squeeze a message into a 140 character-long tweet, we sometimes have to trim the corners of proper spelling and punctuation. Similarly, to make people stop in their tracks, and start to pay attention to a topic that deserves fuller study, some artistic license may be appropriate. But only if that artistry is quickly backed up with a fuller, more dispassionate, balanced analysis.

What I’ve described here is a two-phase model for spreading ideas about disruptive technologies such as AGI:

  1. Key topics can be introduced, in vivid ways, using larger-than-life characters in absorbing narratives, whether in Hollywood or in novels
  2. The topics can then be rounded out, in multiple shades of grey, via film and book reviews, blog posts, magazine articles, and so on.

Since I perceive both the potential upsides and the potential downsides of AGI as being enormous, I want to enlarge the pool of people who are thinking hard about these topics. I certainly don’t want the resulting discussion to slide off to an extreme point of view which would cause the whole field of AGI to be suspended, or which would encourage active sabotage and armed resistance against it. But nor do I want the discussion to wither away, in a way that would increase the likelihood of adverse unintended outcomes from aberrant AGI.

Welcoming Pandora’s Brain

cropped-cover-2That’s why I welcome the recent publication of the novel “Pandora’s Brain”, by the above-mentioned blogger Calum Chace. Pandora’s Brain is a science and philosophy thriller that transforms a series of philosophical concepts into vivid life-and-death conundrums that befall the characters in the story. Here’s how another science novellist, William Hertling, describes the book:

Pandora’s Brain is a tour de force that neatly explains the key concepts behind the likely future of artificial intelligence in the context of a thriller novel. Ambitious and well executed, it will appeal to a broad range of readers.

In the same way that Suarez’s Daemon and Naam’s Nexus leaped onto the scene, redefining what it meant to write about technology, Pandora’s Brain will do the same for artificial intelligence.

Mind uploading? Check. Human equivalent AI? Check. Hard takeoff singularity? Check. Strap in, this is one heck of a ride.

Mainly set in the present day, the plot unfolds in an environment that seems reassuringly familiar, but which is overshadowed by a combination of both menace and promise. Carefully crafted, and absorbing from its very start, the book held my rapt attention throughout a series of surprise twists, as various personalities react in different ways to a growing awareness of that menace and promise.

In short, I found Pandora’s Brain to be a captivating tale of developments in artificial intelligence that could, conceivably, be just around the corner. The imminent possibility of these breakthroughs cause characters in the book to re-evaluate many of their cherished beliefs, and will lead most readers to several “OMG” realisations about their own philosophies of life. Apple carts that are upended in the processes are unlikely ever to be righted again. Once the ideas have escaped from the pages of this Pandora’s box of a book, there’s no going back to a state of innocence.

But as I said, not everyone is enthralled by the prospect of wider attention to the “menace” side of AGI. Each new novel or film in this space has the potential of stirring up a negative backlash against AGI researchers, potentially preventing them from doing the work that would deliver the powerful “promise” side of AGI.

The dual potential of AGI

FLIThe tremendous dual potential of AGI was emphasised in an open letter published in January by the Future of Life Institute:

There is now a broad consensus that AI research is progressing steadily, and that its impact on society is likely to increase. The potential benefits are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide, but the eradication of disease and poverty are not unfathomable. Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls.

“The eradication of disease and poverty” – these would be wonderful outcomes from the project to create AGI. But the lead authors of that open letter, including physicist Stephen Hawking and AI professor Stuart Russell, sounded their own warning note:

Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks. In the near term, world militaries are considering autonomous-weapon systems that can choose and eliminate targets; the UN and Human Rights Watch have advocated a treaty banning such weapons. In the medium term, as emphasised by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age, AI may transform our economy to bring both great wealth and great dislocation…

One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.

They followed up with this zinger:

So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong… Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history, little serious research is devoted to these issues outside non-profit institutes… All of us should ask ourselves what we can do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.


Critics give a number of reasons why they see these fears as overblown. To start with, they argue that the people raising the alarm – Stephen Hawking, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, Oxford University philosophy professor Nick Bostrom, and so on – lack their own expertise in AGI. They may be experts in black hole physics (Hawking), or in electric cars (Musk), or in academic philosophy (Bostrom), but that gives them no special insights into the likely course of development of AGI. Therefore we shouldn’t pay particular attention to what they say.

A second criticism is that it’s premature to worry about the advent of AGI. AGI is still situated far into the future. In this view, as stated by Demis Hassabis, founder of DeepMind,

We’re many, many decades away from anything, any kind of technology that we need to worry about.

The third criticism is that it will be relatively simple to stop AGI causing any harm to humans. AGI will be a tool to humans, under human control, rather than having its own autonomy. This view is represented by this tweet by science populariser Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Seems to me, as long as we don’t program emotions into Robots, there’s no reason to fear them taking over the world.

I hear all these criticisms, but they’re by no means the end of the discussion. They’re no reason to terminate the discussion about AGI risks. That’s the argument I’m going to make in the remainder of this blogpost.

By the way, you’ll find all these of these criticisms mirrored in the course of the novel Pandora’s Brain. That’s another reason I recommend that people should read that book. It manages to bring a great deal of serious arguments to the table, in the course of entertaining (and sometimes frightening) the reader.

Answering the criticisms: personnel

Elon Musk, one of the people who have raised the alarm about AGI risks, lacks any PhD in Artificial Intelligence to his name. It’s the same with Stephen Hawking and with Nick Bostrom. On the other hand, others who are raising the alarm do have relevant qualifications.

AI a modern approachConsider as just one example Stuart Russell, who is a computer-science professor at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of the 1152-page best-selling text-book “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”. This book is described as follows:

Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, 3rd edition offers the most comprehensive, up-to-date introduction to the theory and practice of artificial intelligence. Number one in its field, this textbook is ideal for one or two-semester, undergraduate or graduate-level courses in Artificial Intelligence.

Moreover, other people raising the alarm include some the giants of the modern software industry:

Wozniak put his worries as follows – in an interview for the Australian Financial Review:

“Computers are going to take over from humans, no question,” Mr Wozniak said.

He said he had long dismissed the ideas of writers like Raymond Kurzweil, who have warned that rapid increases in technology will mean machine intelligence will outstrip human understanding or capability within the next 30 years. However Mr Wozniak said he had come to recognise that the predictions were coming true, and that computing that perfectly mimicked or attained human consciousness would become a dangerous reality.

“Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they’ll think faster than us and they’ll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently,” Mr Wozniak said.

“Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on? I don’t know about that…

And here’s what Bill Gates said on the matter, in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit:

I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.

Returning to Elon Musk, even his critics must concede he has shown remarkable ability to make new contributions in areas of technology outside his original specialities. Witness his track record with PayPal (a disruption in finance), SpaceX (a disruption in rockets), and Tesla Motors (a disruption in electric batteries and electric cars). And that’s even before considering his contributions at SolarCity and Hyperloop.

Incidentally, Musk puts his money where his mouth is. He has donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute to run a global research program aimed at keeping AI beneficial to humanity.

I sum this up as follows: the people raising the alarm in recent months about the risks of AGI have impressive credentials. On occasion, their sound-bites may cut corners in logic, but they collectively back up these sound-bites with lengthy books and articles that deserve serious consideration.

Answering the criticisms: timescales

I have three answers to the comment about timescales. The first is to point out that Demis Hassabis himself sees no reason for any complacency, on account of the potential for AGI to require “many decades” before it becomes a threat. Here’s the fuller version of the quote given earlier:

We’re many, many decades away from anything, any kind of technology that we need to worry about. But it’s good to start the conversation now and be aware of as with any new powerful technology it can be used for good or bad.

(Emphasis added.)

Second, the community of people working on AGI has mixed views on timescales. The Future of Life Institute ran a panel discussion in Puerto Rico in January that addressed (among many other topics) “Creating human-level AI: how and when”. Dileep George of Vicarious gave the following answer about timescales in his slides (PDF):

Will we solve the fundamental research problems in N years?

N <= 5: No way
5 < N <= 10: Small possibility
10 < N <= 20: > 50%.

In other words, in his view, there’s a greater than 50% chance that artificial general human-level intelligence will be solved within 20 years.

SuperintelligenceThe answers from the other panellists aren’t publicly recorded (the event was held under Chatham House rules). However, Nick Bostrom has conducted several surveys among different communities of AI researchers. The results are included in his book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. The communities surveyed included:

  • Participants at an international conference: Philosophy & Theory of AI
  • Participants at another international conference: Artificial General Intelligence
  • The Greek Association for Artificial Intelligence
  • The top 100 cited authors in AI.

In each case, participants were asked for the dates when they were 90% sure human-level AGI would be achieved, 50% sure, and 10% sure. The average answers were:

  • 90% likely human-level AGI is achieved: 2075
  • 50% likely: 2040
  • 10% likely: 2022.

If we respect what this survey says, there’s at least a 10% chance of breakthrough developments within the next ten years. Therefore it’s no real surprise that Hassabis says

It’s good to start the conversation now and be aware of as with any new powerful technology it can be used for good or bad.

Third, I’ll give my own reasons for why progress in AGI might speed up:

  • Computer hardware is likely to continue to improve – perhaps utilising breakthroughs in quantum computing
  • Clever software improvements can increase algorithm performance even more than hardware improvements
  • Studies of the human brain, which are yielding knowledge faster than ever before, can be translated into “neuromorphic computing”
  • More people are entering and studying AI than ever before, in part due to MOOCs, such as that from Stanford University
  • There are more software components, databases, tools, and methods available for innovative recombination
  • AI methods are being accelerated for use in games, financial trading, malware detection (and in malware itself), and in many other industries
  • There could be one or more “Sputnik moments” causing society to buckle up its motivation to more fully support AGI research (especially when AGI starts producing big benefits in healthcare diagnosis).

Answering the critics: control

I’ve left the hardest question to last. Could there be relatively straightforward ways to keep AGI under control? For example, would it suffice to avoid giving AGI intentions, or emotions, or autonomy?

For example, physics professor and science populariser Michio Kaku speculates as follows:

No one knows when a robot will approach human intelligence, but I suspect it will be late in the 21st century. Will they be dangerous? Possibly. So I suggest we put a chip in their brain to shut them off if they have murderous thoughts.

And as mentioned earlier, Neil deGrasse Tyson proposes,

As long as we don’t program emotions into Robots, there’s no reason to fear them taking over the world.

Nick Bostrom devoted a considerable portion of his book to this “Control problem”. Here are some reasons I think we need to continue to be extremely careful:

  • Emotions and intentions might arise unexpectedly, as unplanned side-effects of other aspects of intelligence that are built into software
  • All complex software tends to have bugs; it may fail to operate in the way that we instruct it
  • The AGI software will encounter many situations outside of those we explicitly anticipated; the response of the software in these novel situations may be to do “what we asked it to do” but not what we would have wished it to do
  • Complex software may be vulnerable to having its functionality altered, either by external hacking, or by well-intentioned but ill-executed self-modification
  • Software may find ways to keep its inner plans hidden – it may have “murderous thoughts” which it prevents external observers from noticing
  • More generally, black-box evolution methods may result in software that works very well in a large number of circumstances, but which will go disastrously wrong in new circumstances, all without the actual algorithms being externally understood
  • Powerful software can have unplanned adverse effects, even without any consciousness or emotion being present; consider battlefield drones, infrastructure management software, financial investment software, and nuclear missile detection software
  • Software may be designed to be able to manipulate humans, initially for purposes akin to advertising, or to keep law and order, but these powers may evolve in ways that have worse side effects.

A new Columbus?

christopher-columbus-shipsA number of the above thoughts started forming in my mind as I attended the Singularity University Summit in Seville, Spain, a few weeks ago. Seville, I discovered during my visit, was where Christopher Columbus persuaded King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to fund his proposed voyage westwards in search of a new route to the Indies. It turns out that Columbus succeeded in finding the new continent of America only because he was hopelessly wrong in his calculation of the size of the earth.

From the time of the ancient Greeks, learned observers had known that the earth was a sphere of roughly 40 thousand kilometres in circumference. Due to a combination of mistakes, Columbus calculated that the Canary Islands (which he had often visited) were located only about 4,440 km from Japan; in reality, they are about 19,000 km apart.

Most of the countries where Columbus pitched the idea of his westward journey turned him down – believing instead the figures for the larger circumference of the earth. Perhaps spurred on by competition with the neighbouring Portuguese (who had, just a few years previously, successfully navigated to the Indian ocean around the tip of Africa), the Spanish king and queen agreed to support his adventure. Fortunately for Columbus, a large continent existed en route to Asia, allowing him landfall. And the rest is history. That history included the near genocide of the native inhabitants by conquerors from Europe. Transmission of European diseases compounded the misery.

It may be the same with AGI. Rational observers may have ample justification in thinking that true AGI is located many decades in the future. But this fact does not deter a multitude of modern-day AGI explorers from setting out, Columbus-like, in search of some dramatic breakthroughs. And who knows what intermediate forms of AI might be discovered, unexpectedly?

It all adds to the argument for keeping our wits fully about us. We should use every means at our disposal to think through options in advance. This includes well-grounded fictional explorations, such as Pandora’s Brain, as well as the novels by William Hertling. And it also includes the kinds of research being undertaken by the Future of Life Institute and associated non-profit organisations, such as CSER in Cambridge, FHI in Oxford, and MIRI (the Machine Intelligence Research Institute).

Let’s keep this conversation open – it’s far too important to try to shut it down.

Footnote: Vacancies at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk

I see that the Cambridge University CSER (Centre for the Study of Existential Risk) have four vacancies for Research Associates. From the job posting:

Up to four full-time postdoctoral research associates to work on the project Towards a Science of Extreme Technological Risk (ETR) within the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).

CSER’s research focuses on the identification, management and mitigation of possible extreme risks associated with future technological advances. We are currently based within the University’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). Our goal is to bring together some of the best minds from academia, industry and the policy world to tackle the challenges of ensuring that powerful new technologies are safe and beneficial. We focus especially on under-studied high-impact risks – risks that might result in a global catastrophe, or even threaten human extinction, even if only with low probability.

The closing date for applications is 24th April. If you’re interested, don’t delay!

29 August 2014

Can technology bring us peace?

SevereThe summer months of 2014 have brought us a sickening surfeit of awful news. Our newsfeeds have been full of conflict, casualties, and brutalities in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, and so on. For example, just a couple of days ago, my browser screamed at me, Let’s be clear about this: Russia is invading Ukraine right now. And my TV has just informed me that the UK’s terror threat level is being raised from “substantial” to “severe”:

The announcement comes amid increasing concern about hundreds of UK nationals who are believed by security services to have travelled to fight in Iraq and Syria.

These real-world conflicts have been giving rise to online mirror conflicts among many of the people that I tend to respect. These online controversies play out heated disputes about the rights and wrongs of various participants in the real-world battles. Arguments ding-dong ferociously: What is the real reason that MH17 plane was shot down? How disproportionate is the response by Israel to provocations from Hamas? How much is Islamic belief to blame for the barbarism of the self-proclaimed Islamic State? Or is the US to blame, on account of its ill-advised meddling in far-off lands? And how fair is it to compare Putin to Hitler?

But at a recent informal pub gathering of London Futurists, one of the long-time participants in these meetups, Andrius Kasparavicius, asked a hard question. Shouldn’t those of us who believe in the transformational potential of new technology – those of us who dare to call ourselves technoprogressives, transhumanists, or social futurists – have a better answer to these conflict flashpoints? Rather than falling back into twentieth century diatribes against familiar bête noir villains, isn’t it worth striving to find a 21st century viewpoint that transcends such rivalries? We talk a lot about innovation: can’t we be innovative about solving these global flashpoints?

A similar thought gnawed at me a few weeks later, during a family visit to Inverness. A local production of West Side Story was playing at the Eden Court theatre. Bernstein’s music was exhilarating. Sondheim’s lyrics were witty and provocative. The cast shimmied and slunk around the stage. From our vantage point in the second row of seats, we could see all the emotions flit across the faces of the performers. The sudden tragic ending hit hard. And I thought to myself: These two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, were locked into a foolish, needless struggle. They lacked an adult, future perspective. Isn’t it the same with the tragic conflicts that occupy our newsfeeds? These conflicts have their own Jets and Sharks, and, yes, a lack of an adult, future perspective. Can’t they see the better future which is within our collective grasp, if only they can cast aside their tribal perspectives?

That thought was soon trumped by another: the analogy is unfair. Some battles are worth fighting. For example, if we take no action against Islamic State, we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s an ever worse spate of summary beheadings, forced conversions, women being driven into servitude roles in societies all over the middle east, and terrorist strikes throughout the wider world.

But still… isn’t it worth considering possible technological, technoprogressive, or transhumanist approaches to peace?

  • After all, we say that technology changes everything. History is the story of the continual invention and enhancement of tools, machines, and devices of numerous sorts, which transform human experience in all fields of life.
  • Indeed, human progress has taken place by the discovery and mastery of engineering solutions – such as fire, the wheel, irrigation, sailing ships, writing, printing, the steam engine, electricity, domestic kitchen appliances, railways and automobiles, computers and the Internet, plastics, vaccinations, anaesthetic, contraception, and better hygiene.
  • What’s more, the rate of technological change is increasing, as larger numbers of engineers, scientists, designers, and entrepreneurs from around the globe participate in a rich online network exchange of ideas and information. Forthcoming technological improvements can propel human experience onto an even higher plane – with our minds and bodies both being dramatically enhanced.
  • So shouldn’t the further development of technology give us more options to achieve lasting resolution of global flashpoints?

Event previewTherefore I have arranged an online hangout discussion meeting: Global flashpoints: what do transhumanists have to say? This will be taking place at 7pm UK time this Sunday, 31st August. The corresponding YouTube video page (for people who prefer not to log into Google+ in order to view the Hangout that way) is here. I’ll be joined in this discussion by a number of thinkers from different transhumanist perspectives, based around Europe.

I’ve put a plaintive note on the meeting invite:

In our discussion, we’ll try to transcend the barbs and scape-goating that fills so much of existing online discussion about Iraq/Syria/Ukraine/Gaza/etc.

I honestly don’t know how the discussion is going to unfold. But here are some possible lines of argument:

  1. Consider the flashpoint in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting dead of teenager Michael Brown. That particular conflict arose, in part, because of disputes over what actually happened at the time of the shooting. But if the police in Ferguson had all been wearing and operating personal surveillance cameras,  then perhaps a lot of the heat would have gone out of the issue. That would be one example of taking advantage of recent improvements in technology in order to defuse a potential conflict hotspot
  2. Much conflict is driven by people feeling a sense of profound alienation from mainstream culture. Disaffected youths from all over Europe are leaving their families behind to travel to support fundamentalist Islamic causes in the middle east. They need a much better vision of the future, to reduce the chance that they will fall prey to these particular mind viruses. Could social futurism, technoprogressivism, and transhumanism offer that alternative vision?
  3. Rather than technology helping to create peace, there’s a major risk it will help to worsen conflicts. Powerful arsenals in the hands of malcontents are likely to have a more horrific impact nowadays – and an even worse one in the near future – than corresponding weaponry had in the past. Think also of the propaganda value of Islamic State execution videos distributed via YouTube – that kind of effect was unthinkable just a decade ago.

Existential ThreatOf these three lines of discussion, I am most persuaded by the third one. The implications are as follows. The message that we social futurists and transhumanists should be highlighting, in response to these outrages is, sadly, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. There are actually existential risks that will deserve very serious collective action, in order to solve. In that case, it’s even more imperative that the global community gets its act together, and finds a more effective way to resolve the conflicts in our midst.

At the same time, we do need to emphasise the positive vision of where the world could reach in, say, just a few decades: a world with enormous abundance, fuelled by new technologies (nanotech, solar energy, rejuvenation biotech, ubiquitous smart robots) – a world that will transcend the aspirations of all existing ideologies. If we can make the path to this future more credible, there’s good reason to hope that people all over the world will set aside their previous war-like tendencies, tribal loyalties, and dark age mythologies.


30 January 2014

A brilliant example of communication about science and humanity

Mathematical Universe

Do you enjoy great detective puzzles? Do you like noticing small anomalies, and turning them into clues to an unexpected explanation? Do you like watching world-class scientists at work, piecing together insights to create new theories, and coping with disappointments when their theories appear to be disproved?

In the book “Our mathematical universe”, the mysteries being addressed are some of the very biggest imaginable:

  • What is everything made out of?
  • Where does the universe come from? For example, what made the Big Bang go “bang”?
  • What gives science its authority to speak with so much confidence about matters such as the age and size of the universe?
  • Is it true that the constants of nature appear remarkably “fine-tuned” so as to allow the emergence of life – in a way suggesting a miracle?
  • What does modern physics (including quantum mechanics) have to teach us about mind and consciousness?
  • What are the chances of other intelligent life existing in our galaxy (or even elsewhere in our universe)?
  • What lies in the future of the human race?

The author, Max Tegmark, is a Swedish-born professor of physics at MIT. He’s made a host of significant contributions to the development of cosmology – some of which you can read about in the book. But in his book, he also shows himself in my view to be a first class philosopher and a first class communicator.

Indeed, this may be the best book on the philosophy of physics that I have ever read. It also has important implications for the future of humanity.

There are some very big ideas in the book. It gives reasons for believing that our universe exists alongside no fewer than four different types of parallel universes. The “level 4 multiverse” is probably one of the grandest conceptions in all of philosophy. (What’s more, I’m inclined to think it’s the correct description of reality. At its heart, despite its grandness, it’s actually a very simple theory, which is a big plus in its favour.)

Much of the time, the writing in the book is accessible to people with pre-university level knowledge of science. On occasion, the going gets harder, but readers should be able to skip over these sections. I recommend reading the book all the way through, since the last chapter contains many profound ideas.

I think you’ll like this book if:

  • You have a fondness for pure mathematics
  • You recognise that the scientific explanation of phenomenon can be every bit as uplifting as pre-scientific supernatural explanations
  • You are ready to marvel at the ingenuity of scientific investigators going all the way back to the ancient Greeks (including those who first measured the distance from the Earth to the Sun)
  • You are critical of “quantum woo woo” hand-waving that says that quantum mechanics proves that consciousness is somehow a non-local agent (and that minds will survive bodily death)
  • You want to find more about Hugh Everett, the physicist who first proposed that “the quantum wave function never collapses”
  • You have a hunch that there’s a good answer to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”
  • You want to see scientists in action, when they are confronted by evidence that their favoured theories are disproved by experiment
  • You’re ready to laugh at the misadventures that a modern cosmologist experiences (including eminent professors falling asleep in the audience of his lectures)
  • You’re interested in the considered viewpoint of a leading scientist about matters of human existential risk, including nuclear wars and the technological singularity.

Even more than all these good reasons, I highlight this book as an example of what the world badly needs: clear, engaging advocacy of the methods of science and reason, as opposed to mysticism and obscurantism.

Footnote: For my own views about the meaning of quantum mechanics, see my earlier blogpost “Schrödinger’s Rabbits”.

26 September 2013

Risk blindness and the forthcoming energy crash

Filed under: books, carbon, chaos, climate change, Economics, irrationality, politics, risks, solar energy — David Wood @ 11:28 am

‘Logical’ is the last thing human thinking, individual and collective, is. Too compelling an argument can even drive people with a particularly well-insulated belief system deeper into denial.

JL in Japan 2The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance, by Jeremy Leggett, is full of vividly quotable aphorisms – such as the one I’ve just cited. I see Jeremy as one of the world’s leading thinkers on solar energy, oil depletion, climate change, and the dysfunctional ways in which investment all-too-frequently works. The Observer has described him as “Britain’s most respected green energy boss”. A glance at his CV shows an impressive range of accomplishments:

Jeremy Leggett is founder and chairman of Solarcentury, the UK’s fastest growing renewable energy company since 2000, and founder and chairman of SolarAid, an African solar lighting charity set up with 5% of Solarcentury’s annual profits and itself parent to a social venture, SunnyMoney, that is the top-selling retailer of solar lights in Africa.

Jeremy has been a CNN Principal Voice, and an Entrepreneur of the Year at the New Energy Awards. He was the first Hillary Laureate for International Leadership on Climate Change, chairs the financial-sector think-tank Carbon Tracker and is a consultant on systemic risk to large corporations. He writes and blogs on occasion for the Guardian and the Financial Times, lectures on short courses in business and society at the universities of Cambridge and St Gallen, and is an Associate Fellow at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.

On his own website, The triple crunch log, Jeremy has the following to say about himself:

This log covers the energy-, climate-, and financial crises, and issues pertinent to society’s response to this “triple crunch”…

Let me explain why am I worried about oil depletion, climate change, and dysfunctional investment.

I researched earth history for 14 years, and so know a bit about what makes up the climate system. I researched oil source rocks for several of those years, funded by BP and Shell among others, and I explored for oil and gas in the Middle East and Asia, so I have a background in the issues relevant to peak oil. And more recently I have been a clean-energy entrepreneur and investor for more than decade, as founder of a solar energy company and founding director of a Swiss venture capital fund, so I have seen how the capital markets operate close to. That experience is the basis for my concerns…

Many of the critics who comment on my blogs urge readers to discount everything I say because I am trying to sell solar energy, and so therefore must be in it for the money, hyping concerns about climate change and peak oil in the cause of self enrichment. (As you would). They have it completely the wrong way round.

I left a lucrative career consulting for the oil industry, and teaching its technicians, because I was concerned about global warming and wanted to act on that concern. I joined Greenpeace (1989), on a fraction of my former income, to campaign for clean energy. I left Greenpeace (1997) to set up a non-profit organisation campaigning for clean energy. I turned it into a for-profit company (1999) because I came to the view that was the best possible way I could campaign for clean energy – by creating a commercial success that could show the way. The company I set up gives 5% of its operating profit to a charity that also campaigns for clean energy, SolarAid. All that said, I hope Solarcentury makes a lot of money. It won’t have succeeded in its mission if it doesn’t. I’m hoping fewer people will still want to discount my arguments, knowing the history.

Today marks the UK availability of his book, The Energy of Nations. Heeding its own advice, quoted above, that there are drawbacks to presenting arguments in an overly rational or compelling format, the book proceeds down a parallel course. A large part of the book reads more like a novel than a textbook, with numerous fascinating episodes retold from Jeremy’s diaries.


The cast of characters that have walk-on parts in these episodes include prime ministers, oil industry titans, leading bankers, journalists, civil servants, analysts, and many others. Heroes and villains appear and re-appear, sometimes grown wiser with the passage of years, but sometimes remaining as recalcitrant, sinister (yes), and slippery (yes again) as ever.

A core theme of the book is risk blindness. Powerful vested interests in society have their own reasons to persuade public opinion that there’s nothing to worry about – that everything is under control. Resources at the disposal of these interests (“the incumbency”) inflict a perverse blindness on society, as regards the risks of the status quo. Speaking against the motion at a debate, This House Believes Peak Oil Is No Longer a Concern, in London’s Queen Elizabeth II Congress Centre in March 2009, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis brought on by hugely unwarranted over-confidence among bankers, Jeremy left a trenchant analogy hanging in the mind of the audience:

I explain that those of us who worry about peak oil fear that the oil industry has lapsed into a culture of over-exuberance about both the remaining oil reserves and prospects of resources yet to be turned into reserves, and about the industry’s ability to deliver capacity to the market even if enough resources exist.

Our main argument is that new capacity flows coming onstream from discoveries made by the oil industry over the past decade don’t compensate for depletion. Hence projections of demand cannot be met a few years hence. This problem will be compounded by other issues, including the accelerating depletion of the many old oilfields that prop up much of global oil production today, the probable exaggeration by OPEC countries of their reserves, and the failure of the ‘price-mechanism’ assumption that higher prices will lead to increased exploration and expanding discoveries…

In conclusion, this debate is all about the risk of a mighty global industry having its asset assessment systemically overstated, due to an endemic culture of over-optimism, with potentially ruinous economic implications.

I pause to let that sentence hang in the air for a second or two.

Now that couldn’t possibly happen, could it?

This none too subtle allusion to the disaster playing out in the financial sector elicits a polite laugh from the audience…

Nowadays, people frequently say that the onset of shale oil and gas should dissolve fears about impending reductions in the availability of oil. Jeremy sees this view as profoundly misguided. Shale is likely to fall far, far short of the expectations that have been heaped on it:

For many, the explosive growth of shale gas production in the USA – now extending into oil from shale, or ‘tight oil’ as it is properly known – is a revolution, a game-changer, and it even heralds a ‘new era of fossil fuels’. For a minority, it shows all the signs of being the next bubble in the markets.

In the incumbency’s widely held view, the US shale gas phenomenon can be exported, opening the way to cheap gas in multiple countries. For others, even if there is no bubble, the phenomenon is not particularly exportable, for a range of environmental, economic and political reasons

This risk too entails shock potential. Take a country like the UK. Its Treasury wishes actively to suppress renewables, so as to ensure that investors won’t be deterred from bankrolling the conversion of the UK into a ‘gas hub’. Picture the scene if most of the national energy eggs are put in that basket, infrastructure is capitalised, and then supplies of cheap gas fall far short of requirement, or even fail to materialise.

As the book makes clear, our collective risk blindness prevents society as a whole from reaching a candid appraisal of no fewer than five major risks facing us over the next few years: oil shock, climate shock, a further crash in the global financial system, the bursting of a carbon bubble in the capital markets, and the crash of the shale gas boom. The emphasis on human irrationality gels with a lot of my own prior reading – as I’ve covered e.g. in Our own entrenched enemies of reasonAnimal spirits – a richer understanding of economics, Influencer – the power to change anything, as well as in my most recent posting When faith gets in the way of progress.

The book concludes with a prediction that society is very likely to encounter, by as early as 2015, either a dramatic oil shock (the widespread realisation that the era of cheap oil is behind us, and that the oil industry has misled us as badly as did the sellers of financial hocus pocus), or a renewed financial crisis, which would then precipitate (but perhaps more slowly) the same oil shock. To that extent, the book is deeply pessimistic.

But there is plenty of optimism in the book too. The author believes – as do I – that provided suitable preparatory steps are taken (as soon as possible), society ought to be able to rebound from the forthcoming crash. He spends time explaining “five premises for the Road to Renaissance”:

  1. The readiness of clean energy for explosive growth
  2. The intrinsic pro-social attributes of clean energy
  3. The increasing evidence of people power in the world
  4. The pro-social tendencies in the human mind
  5. The power of context that leaders will be operating in after the oil crash.

But alongside his optimism, he issues a sharp warning:

I do not pretend that things won’t get much worse before they get better. There will be rioting. There will be food kitchens. There will be blood. There already have been, after the financial crash of 2008. But the next time round will be much worse. In the chaos, we could lose our way like the Maya did.

In summary, it’s a profoundly important book. I found it to be a real pleasure to read, even though the topic is nerve-racking. I burst out laughing in a number of places, and then reflected that it was nervous laughter.

The book is full of material that will probably make you want to underline it or tweet an extract online. The momentum builds up to a dramatic conclusion. Anyone concerned about the future should make time to read it.

Not everyone will agree with everything it contains, but it is clearly an honest and heartfelt contribution to vital debates. The book has already been receiving some terrific reviews from an interesting variety of people. You can see those, a summary, Chapter One, and links for buying the book here.

Finally, it’s a book that is designed to provoke discussion. I’m delighted that the author has agreed to speak at a London Futurists event on Saturday 5th October. Please click here for more details and to RSVP. This is a first class topic addressed by a first class speaker, which deserves a first class audience to match!

21 March 2013

The burning need for better supra-national governance

International organisations have a bad reputation these days. The United Nations is widely seen as ineffective. There’s a retreat towards “localism”: within Britain, the EU is unpopular; within Scotland, Britain is unpopular. And any talk of “giving up sovereignty” is deeply unpopular.

However, lack of effective international organisations and supra-national governance is arguably the root cause of many of the biggest crises facing humanity in the early 21st century.

That was the thesis which Ian Golding, Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development, very ably shared yesterday evening in the Hong Kong Theatre in the London School of Economics. He was quietly spoken, but his points hit home strongly. I was persuaded.

DividedNationsThe lecture was entitled Divided Nations: Why global governance is failing and what we can do about it. It coincided with the launch of a book with the same name. For more details of the book, see this blogpost on the website of the Oxford Martin School, where Ian Golding holds the role of Director.

It’s my perception that many technology enthusiasts, futurists, and singularitarians have a blind spot when it comes to the topic of the dysfunction of current international organisations. They tend to assume that technological improvements will automatically resolve the crises and risks facing society. Governments and regulators should ideally leave things well alone – so the plea goes.

My own view is that smarter coordination and regulation is definitely needed – even though it will be hard to set that up. Professor Goldin’s lecture amply reinforced that view.

On the train home from the lecture, I downloaded the book onto my Kindle. I recommend anyone who is serious about the future of humanity to read it. Drawing upon the assembled insights and wisdom of the remarkable set of scholars at the Oxford Martin School, in addition to his own extensive experience in the international scene, Professor Goldin has crystallised state-of-the-art knowledge regarding the pressing urgency, and options, for better supra-national governance.

In the remainder of this blogpost, I share some of the state-of-consciousness notes that I typed while listening to the lecture. Hopefully this will give a flavour of the hugely important topics covered. I apologise in advance for any errors introduced in transcription. Please see the book itself for an authoritative voice. See also the live tweet stream for the meeting, with the hash-tag #LSEGoldin.

What keeps Oxford Martin scholars awake at night

The fear that no one is listening. The international governance system is in total gridlock. There are failures on several levels:

  • Failure of governments to lift themselves to a higher level, instead of being pre-occupied by local, parochial interests
  • Failure of electorates to demand more from their governments
  • Failure of governments for not giving clearer direction to the international institutions.

Progress with international connectivity

80 countries became democratic in the 1990s. Only one country in the world today remains disconnected – North Korea.

Over the last few decades, the total global population has increased, but the numbers in absolute poverty have decreased. This has never happened before in history.

So there are many good aspects to the increase in the economy and inter-connectivity.

However, economists failed to think sufficiently far ahead.

What economists should have thought about: the global commons

What was rational for the individuals and for national governments was not rational for the whole world.

Similar problems exist in several other fields: antibiotic resistance, global warming, the markets. He’ll get to these shortly.

The tragedy of the commons is that, when everyone does what is rational for them, everyone nevertheless ends up suffering. The common resource is not managed.

The pursuit of profits is a good thing – it has worked much better than central planning. But the result is irrationality in aggregate.

The market alone cannot provide a response to resource allocation. Individual governments cannot provide a solution either. A globally coordinated approach is needed.

Example of several countries drawing water from the Aral Sea – which is now arid.

That’s what happens when nations do the right thing for themselves.

The special case of Finance

Finance is by far the most sophisticated of the resource management systems:

  • The best graduates go into the treasury, the federal reserve, etc
  • They are best endowed – the elite organisation
  • These people know each other – they play golf together.

If even the financial bodies can’t understand their own system, this has black implications for other systems.

The growth of the financial markets had two underbellies:

  1. Growing inequality
  2. Growing potential for systemic risk

The growing inequality has actually led to lobbying that exaggerates inequality even more.

The result was a “Race to the bottom”, with governments being persuaded to get out of the regulation of things that actually did need to be regulated.

Speaking after the crisis, Hank Paulson, US Treasury Secretary and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, in effect said “we just did not understand what was happening” – even with all the high-calibre people and advice available to him. That’s a shocking indictment.

The need for regulation

Globalisation requires regulation, not just at the individual national level, but at an international level.

Global organisations are weaker now than in the 1990s.

Nations are becoming more parochial – the examples of UK (thinking of leaving EU) and Scotland (thinking of leaving UK) are mirrored elsewhere too.

Yes, integration brings issues that are hard to control, but the response to withdraw from integration is terribly misguided.

We cannot put back the walls. Trying to withdraw into local politics is dreadfully misguided.

Five examples

His book has five examples as illustrations of his general theme (and that’s without talking in this book about poverty, or nuclear threats):

  1. Finance
  2. Pandemics
  3. Migration
  4. Climate change
  5. Cyber-security

Many of these problems arise from the success of globalisation – the extraordinary rise in incomes worldwide in the last 25 years.

Pandemics require supra-national attention, because of increased connectivity:

  • The rapid spread of swine flu was correlated tightly with aircraft travel.
  • It will just take 2 days for a new infectious disease to travel all the way round the world.

The idea that you can isolate yourself from the world is a myth. There’s little point having a quarantine regime in place in Oxford if a disease is allowed to flourish in London. The same applies between countries, too.

Technology developments exacerbate the problem. DNA analysis is a good thing, but the capacity to synthesise diseases has terrible consequences:

  • There’s a growing power for even a very small number of individuals to cause global chaos, e.g. via pathogens
  • Think of something like Waco Texas – people who are fanatical Armageddonists – but with greater technical skills.

Cyber-security issues arise from the incredible growth in network connectivity. Jonathan Zittrain talks about “The end of the Internet”:

  • The Internet is not governed by governments
  • Problems to prosecute people, even when we know who they are and where they are (but in a different jurisdiction)
  • Individuals and small groups could destabilise whole Internet.

Migration is another “orphan issue”. No international organisation has the authority to deal with it:

  • Control over immigration is, in effect, an anarchic, bullying system
  • We have very bad data on migration (even in the UK).

The existing global institutions

The global institutions that we have were a response to post-WW2 threats.

For a while, these institutions did well. The World Bank = Bank for reconstruction. It did lead a lot of reconstruction.

But over time, we became complacent. The institutions became out-dated and lost their vitality.

The recent financial crisis shows that the tables have been turned round: incredible scene of EU taking its begging bowl to China.

The tragedy is that the lessons well-known inside the existing institutions have not been learned. There are lessons about the required sequencing of reforms, etc. But with the loss of vitality of these institutions, the knowledge is being lost.

The EU has very little bandwidth for managing global affairs. Same as US. Same as Japan. They’re all preoccupied by local issues.

The influence of the old G7 is in decline. The new powers are not yet ready to take over the responsibility: China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa…

  • The new powers don’t actually want this responsibility(different reasons for different countries)
  • China, the most important of the new powers, has other priorities – managing their own poverty issues at home.

The result is that no radical reform happens, of the international institutions:

  • No organisations are killed off
  • No new ones created
  • No new operating principles are agreed.

Therefore the institutions remain ineffective. Look at the lack of meaningful progress towards solving the problems of climate change.

He has been on two Bretton Woods reform commissions, along with “lots of wonderfully smart, well-meaning people”. Four prime ministers were involved, including Gordon Brown. Kofi Annan received the report with good intentions. But no actual reform of UN took place. Governments actually want these institutions to remain weak. They don’t want to give up their power.

It’s similar to the way that the UK is unwilling to give up power to Brussels.


The financial crisis shows what happens when global systems aren’t managed:

  • Downwards spiral
  • Very hard to pull it out afterwards.

We are sleep-walking into global crises. The financial crisis is just a foretaste of what is to come. However, this need not be the case.

A positive note

He’ll finish the lecture by trying to be cheerful.

Action on global issues requires collective action by both citizens and leaders who are not afraid to relinquish power.

The good news:

  • Citizens are more connected than ever before
  • Ideologies that have divided people in the past are reducing in power
  • We can take advantage of the amplification of damage to reputation that can happen on the Internet
  • People can be rapidly mobilised to overturn bad legislation.

Encouraging example of SOPA debate in US about aspects of control of the Internet:

  • 80 million people went online to show their views, in just two days
  • Senate changed their intent within six hours.

Some good examples where international coordination works

  • International plane travel coordination (air traffic control) is example that works very well – it’s a robust system
  • Another good example: the international postal system.

What distinguishes the successes from the failures:

  • In the Air Traffic Control case, no one has a different interest
  • But in other cases, there are lots of vested interest – neutering the effectiveness of e.g. the international response to the Syrian crisis
  • Another troubling failure example is what happened in Iraq – it was a travesty of what the international system wanted and needed.

Government leaders are afraid that electorate aren’t ready to take a truly international perspective. To be internationalist in political circles is increasingly unfashionable. So we need to change public opinion first.

Like-minded citizens need to cooperate, building a growing circle of legitimacy. Don’t wait for the global system to play catch-up.

In the meantime, true political leaders should find some incremental steps, and should avoid excuse of global inaction.

Sadly, political leaders are often tied up addressing short-term crises, but these short-term crises are due to no-one satisfactorily addressing the longer-term issues. With inaction on the international issues, the short-term crises will actually get worse.

Avoiding the perfect storm

The scenario we face for the next 15-20 years is “perfect storm with no captain”.

He calls for a “Manhattan project” for supra-national governance. His book is a contribution to initiating such a project.

He supports the subsidiarity principle: decisions should be taken at the most local level possible. Due to hyper-globalisation, there are fewer and fewer things that it makes sense to control at the national level.

Loss of national sovereignty is inevitable. We can have better sovereignty at the global level – and we can influence how that works.

The calibre of leaders

Example of leader who consistently took a global perspective: Nelson Mandela. “Unfortunately we don’t have many Mandelas around.”

Do leaders owe their power bases with electorates because they are parochial? The prevailing wisdom is that national leaders have to shy away from taking a global perspective. But the electorate actually have more wisdom. They know the financial crisis wasn’t just due to bankers in Canary Wharf having overly large bonuses. They know the problems are globally systemic in nature, and need global approaches to fix them.

ian goldin

12 March 2013

The coming revolution in mental enhancement

Filed under: entrepreneurs, futurist, intelligence, neuroengineering, nootropics, risks, UKH+ — David Wood @ 2:50 pm

Here’s a near-future scenario: Within five years, 10% of people in the developed world will be regularly taking smart drugs that noticeably enhance their mental performance.

It turns out there may be a surprising reason for this scenario to fail to come to pass. I’ll get to that shortly. But first, let’s review why the above scenario would be a desirable one.

nbpicAs so often, Nick Bostrom presents the case well. Nick is Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy & Oxford Martin School, Director at the Future of Humanity Institute, and Director of the Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, all at the University of Oxford. He wrote in 2008,

Those who seek the advancement of human knowledge should [consider] kinds of indirect contribution…

No contribution would be more generally applicable than one that improves the performance of the human brain.

Much more effort ought to be devoted to the development of techniques for cognitive enhancement, be they drugs to improve concentration, mental energy, and memory, or nutritional enrichments of infant formula to optimize brain development.

Society invests vast resources in education in an attempt to improve students’ cognitive abilities. Why does it spend so little on studying the biology of maximizing the performance of the human nervous system?

Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes. Even an Einstein or a Darwin at the peak of their powers could not make such a great impact.

Meanwhile others too could benefit from being able to think better, including engineers, school children, accountants, and politicians.

This example illustrates the enormous potential of improving human cognition by even a tiny amount…

The first objection to the above scenario is that it is technically infeasible. People imply that no such drug could possibly exist. Any apparent evidence offered to the contrary is inevitably suspect. Questions can be raised over the anecdotes shared in the Longecity thread “Ten months of research condensed – A total newbies guide to nootropics” or in the recent Unfinished Man review “Nootropics – The Facts About ‘Smart Drugs'”. After all, the reasoning goes, the brain is too complex. So these anecdotes are likely to involve delusion – whether it is self-delusion (people not being aware of placebo effects and similar) or delusion from snake oil purveyors who have few scruples in trying to sell products.

A related objection is that the side-effects of such drugs are unknown or difficult to assess. Yes, there are substances (take alcohol as an example) which can aid our creativity, but with all kinds of side-effects. The whole field is too dangerous – or so it is said.

These objections may have carried weight some years ago, but increasingly they have less force. Other complex aspects of human functionality can be improved by targeted drugs; why not also the brain? Yes, people vary in how they respond to specific drug combinations, but that’s something that can be taken into account. Indeed, more data is being collected all the time.

Evidence of progress in the study of these smart drugs is one thing I expect to feature in an event taking place in central London this Wednesday (13th March).

next big thingThe event, The Miracle Pill: What do brain boosting drugs mean for the future? is being hosted by Nesta as part of the Policy Exchange “Next big thing” series.

Here’s an extract from the event website:

If you could take a drug to boost your brain-power, would you?

Drugs to enhance human performance are nothing new. Long-haul lorry drivers and aircraft pilots are known to pop amphetamines to stay alert, and university students down caffeine tablets to ward off drowsiness during all-nighters. But these stimulants work by revving up the entire nervous system and the effect is only temporary.

Arguments over smart drugs are raging. If a drug can improve an individual’s performance, and they do not experience side-effects, some argue, it cannot be such a bad thing.

But where will it all stop? Ambitious parents may start giving mind-enhancing pills to their children. People go to all sorts of lengths to gain an educational advantage and eventually success might be dependent on access to these mind-improving drugs…

This event will ask:

  • What are the limits to performance enhancement drugs, both scientifically and ethically? And who decides?
  • Is there a role for such pills in developing countries, where an extra mental boost might make a distinct difference to those in developing countries?
  • Does there need to be a global agreement to monitor the development of these pills?
  • Should policymakers give drug companies carte blanche to develop these products or is a stricter regulatory regime required?

The event will be chaired by Louise Marston, Head of Innovation and Economic Growth, Nesta. The list of panelists is impressive:

  • Dr Bennett Foddy, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Science and Ethics, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
  • Dr Anders Sandberg, James Martin Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
  • Dr Hilary Leevers, Head of Education & Learning, the Wellcome Trust
  • Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England.

Under-currents of mistrust

From my own experience in discussing smart drugs that could enhance mental performance, I’m aware that objections to their use often run more deeply than the technical questions covered above. There are often under-currents of mistrust:

  • Reliance of smart drugs is viewed as irresponsible, self-indulgent, or as cheating
  • There’s an association with the irresponsible advocacy of so-called “recreational” mind-altering drugs
  • Surely, it is said, there are more reliable and more honourable ways of enhancing our mental powers
  • Besides, what is the point of simply being able to think faster?

I strongly reject the implication of irresponsibility or self-indulgence. Increased mental capability can be applied to all sorts of important questions, resulting in scientific progress, technological breakthrough, more elegant product development, and social benefit. The argument I quoted earlier, from Nick Bostrom, applies here.

I also strongly reject the “either/or” implication, when people advocate pursuit of more traditional methods of mental enhancement instead of reliance of modern technology. Why cannot we do both? When considering our physical health, we pay attention to traditional concerns, such as diet and rest, as well as to the latest medical findings. It should be the same for our mental well-being.

No, the real question is: does it work? And once it becomes clearer that certain combinations of smart drugs can make a significant difference to our mental prowess, with little risk of unwelcome side effects, the other objections to their use will quickly fade away.

It will be similar to the rapid change in attitudes towards IVF (“test tube babies”). I remember a time when all sorts of moral and theological hand-wringing took place over the possibility of in-vitro fertilisation. This hubristic technology, it was said, might create soul-less monstrosities; only wickedly selfish people would ever consider utilising the treatment. That view was held by numerous devout observers – but quickly faded away, in the light of people’s real-world experience with the resulting babies.


This brings us back to the question: how quickly can we expect progress with smart drugs? It’s the 64 million dollar question. Actually it might be a 640 million dollar question. Possibly even more. The entrepreneurs and companies who succeed in developing and marketing good products in the field of mental enhancement stand to tap into very sizeable revenue streams. Pfizer, the developer of Viagra, earned revenues of $509 million in 2008 alone, from that particular enhancement drug. The developers of a Viagra for the mind could reasonably imagine similar revenues.

The barriers here are regulatory as well as technical. But with a rising public interest in the possibility of significant mental enhancement, the mood could swing quickly, enabling much more vigorous investment by highly proficient companies.

The biophysical approach

But there’s one more complication.

Actually this is a positive complication rather than a negative one.

Critics who suggest that there are better approaches to enhancing mental powers than smart drugs, might turn out to be right in a way they didn’t expect. The candidate for a better approach is to use non-invasive electrical and magnetic stimulation of the brain, targeted to specific functional areas.

headset-renderA variety of “helmets” are already available, or have been announced as being under development.

The start-up website Flow State Engaged raises and answers a few questions on this topic, as follows:

Q: What is tDCS?

A: Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is one of the coolest health/self improvement technologies available today. tDCS is a form of neurostimulation which uses a constant, low current delivered directly to the brain via small electrodes to affect brain function.

Q: Is this for real?

A: The US Army and DARPA both currently use tDCS devices to train snipers and drone pilots, and have recorded 2.5x increases in learning rates. This incredible phenomenon of increased learning has been documented by multiple clinical studies as well.

Q: You want one?

A: Today if you want a tDCS machine it’s nearly impossible to find one for less than $600, and you need a prescription to order one. We wanted a simpler cheaper option. So we made our own kit, for ourselves and for all you body hackers out there…

AndrewVSomeone who has made a close personal study of the whole field of nootropics and biophysical approaches (including tDCS) is London-based researcher Andrew Vladimirov.

Back in November, Andrew gave a talk to the London Futurists on “Hacking our wetware: smart drugs and beyond”. It was a well-attended talk that stirred up lots of questions, both in the meeting itself, and subsequently online.

The good news is that Andrew is returning to London Futurists on Saturday 23rd March, where his talk this time will focus on biophysical approaches to “hacking our wetware”.

You can find more details of this meeting here – including how to register to attend.

Introducing the smart-hat

In advance of the meeting, Andrew has shared an alternative vision of the ways in which many people in the not-so-distant future will pursue mental enhancement.

He calls this vision “Towards digital nootropics”:

You are tired, anxious and stressed, and perhaps suffer from a mild headache. Instead of reaching for a pack from Boots the local pharmacists, you put on a fashionable “smarthat” (a neat variation of an “electrocap” with a comfortable 10-20 scheme placement for both small electrodes and solenoids) or, perhaps, its lighter version – a “smart bandana”.

Your phone detects it and a secure wireless connection is instantly established. A Neurostimulator app opens. You select “remove anxiety”, “anti-headache” and “basic relaxation” options, press the button and continue with your business. In 10-15 minutes all these problems are gone.

However, there is still much to do, and an important meeting is looming. So, you go to the “enhance” menu of the Neurostimulator and browse through the long list of options which include “thinking flexibility”, “increase calculus skills”, “creative imagination”, “lateral brainstorm”, “strategic genius”, “great write-up”, “silver tongue” and “cram before exam” amongst many others. There is even a separate night menu with functionality such as “increase memory consolidation while asleep”. You select the most appropriate options, press the button and carry on the meeting preparations.

There are still 15 minutes to go, which is more than enough for the desired effects to kick in. If necessary, they can be monitored and adjusted via the separate neurofeedback menu, as the smarthat also provides limited EEG measurement capabilities. You may use a tablet or a laptop instead of the phone for that.

A new profession: neuroanalyst

Entrepreneurs reading this article may already have noticed the very interesting business-development opportunities this whole field offers. These same entrepreneurs may pay further attention to the next stage of Andrew Vladimirov’s “Towards digital nootropics” vision of the not-so-distant future:

Your neighbour Jane is a trained neuroanalyst, an increasingly popular trade that combines depth psychology and a variety of advanced non-invasive neurostimulation means. Her machinery is more powerful and sophisticated than your average smartphone Neurostim.

While you lie on her coach with the mindhelmet on, she can induce highly detailed memory recall, including memories of early childhood to go through as a therapist. With a flick of a switch, she can also awake dormant mental abilities and skills you’ve never imagined. For instance, you can become a savant for the time it takes to solve some particularly hard problem and flip back to your normal state as you leave Jane’s office.

Since she is licensed, some ethical modulation options are also at her disposal. For instance, if Jane suspects that you are lying and deceiving her, the mindhelmet can be used to reduce your ability to lie – and you won’t even notice it.

Sounds like science fiction? The bulk of necessary technologies is already there, and with enough effort the vision described can be realised in five years or so.

If you live in the vicinity of London, you’ll have the opportunity to question Andrew on aspects of this vision at the London Futurists meetup.

Smart drugs or smart hats?

Will we one day talk as casually about our smarthats as we currently do about our smartphones? Or will there be more focus, instead, on smart drugs?

Personally I expect we’ll be doing both. It’s not necessarily an either/or choice.

And there will probably be even more dramatic ways to enhance our mental powers, that we currently can scarcely conceive.

22 February 2013

Controversies over singularitarian utopianism

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the controversy that arose.

The cause was an hour-long lecture with 55 slides, ranging far and wide over a range of disruptive near-future scenarios, covering both upside and downside. The basic format of the lecture was: first the good news, and then the bad news. As stated on the opening slide,

Some illustrations of the enormous potential first, then some examples of how adding a high level of ambient stupidity might mean we might make a mess of it.

Ian PearsonThe speaker was Ian Pearson, described on his company website as “futurologist, conference speaker, regular media guest, strategist and writer”. The website continues, boldly,

Anyone can predict stuff, but only a few get it right…

Ian Pearson has been a full time futurologist since 1991, with a proven track record of over 85% accuracy at the 10 year horizon.

Ian was speaking, on my invitation, at the London Futurists last Saturday. His chosen topic was audacious in scope:

A Singularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?

We’re all familiar with the idea of the singularity, the end-result of rapid acceleration of technology development caused by positive feedback. This will add greatly to human capability, not just via gadgets but also through direct body and mind enhancement, and we’ll mess a lot with other organisms and AIs too. So we’ll have superhumans and super AIs as part of our society.

But this new technology won’t bring a utopia. We all know that some powerful people, governments, companies and terrorists will also add lots of bad things to the mix. The same technology that lets you enhance your senses or expand your mind also allows greatly increased surveillance and control, eventually to the extremes of direct indoctrination and zombification. Taking the forces that already exist, of tribalism, political correctness, secrecy for them and exposure for us, and so on, it’s clear that the far future will be a weird mixture of fantastic capability, spoiled by abuse…

There were around 200 people in the audience, listening as Ian progressed through a series of increasingly mind-stretching technology opportunities. Judging by the comments posted online afterwards, some of the audience deeply appreciated what they heard:

Thank you for a terrific two hours, I have gone away full of ideas; I found the talk extremely interesting indeed…

I really enjoyed this provocative presentation…

Provocative and stimulating…

Very interesting. Thank you for organizing it!…

Amazing and fascinating!…

But not everyone was satisfied. Here’s an extract from one negative comment:

After the first half (a trippy sub-SciFi brainstorm session) my only question was, “What Are You On?”…

Another audience member wrote his own blogpost about the meeting:

A Singularitanian Utopia or a wasted afternoon?

…it was a warmed-over mish-mash of technological cornucopianism, seasoned with Daily Mail-style reactionary harrumphing about ‘political correctness gone mad’.

These are just the starters of negative feedback; I’ll get to others shortly. As I review what was said in the meeting, and look at the spirited ongoing exchange of comments online, some thoughts come to my mind:

  • Big ideas almost inevitably provoke big reactions; this talk had a lot of particularly big ideas
  • In some cases, the negative reactions to the talk arise from misunderstandings, due in part to so much material being covered in the presentation
  • In other cases, Isee the criticisms as reactions to the seeming over-confidence of the speaker (“…a proven track record of over 85% accuracy”)
  • In yet other cases, I share the negative reactions the talk generated; my own view of the near-future landscape significantly differs from the one presented on stage
  • In nearly all cases, it’s worth taking the time to progress the discussion further
  • After all, if we get our forecasts of the future wrong, and fail to make adequate preparations for the disruptions ahead, it could make a huge difference to our collective well-being.

So let’s look again at some of the adverse reactions. My aim is to raise them in a way that people who didn’t attend the talk should be able to follow the analysis.

(1) Is imminent transformation of much of human life a realistic scenario? Or are these ideas just science fiction?

NBIC SingularityThe main driver for belief in the possible imminent transformation of human life, enabled by rapidly changing technology, is the observation of progress towards “NBIC” convergence.

Significant improvements are taking place, almost daily, in our capabilities to understand and control atoms (Nano-tech), genes and other areas of life-sciences (Bio-tech), bits (Info-comms-tech), and neurons and other areas of mind (Cogno-tech). Importantly, improvements in these different fields are interacting with each other.

As Ian Pearson described the interactions:

  • Nanotech gives us tiny devices
  • Tiny sensors help neuroscience figure out how the mind works
  • Insights from neuroscience feed into machine intelligence
  • Improving machine intelligence accelerates R&D in every field
  • Biotech and IT advances make body and machine connectable

Will all the individual possible applications of NBIC convergence described by Ian happen in precisely the way he illustrated? Very probably not. The future’s not as predictable as that. But something similar could well happen:

  • Cheaper forms of energy
  • Tissue-cultured meat
  • Space exploration
  • Further miniaturisation of personal computing (wearable computing, and even “active skin”)
  • Smart glasses
  • Augmented reality displays
  • Gel computing
  • IQ and sensory enhancement
  • Dream linking
  • Human-machine convergence
  • Digital immortality: “the under 40s might live forever… but which body would you choose?”

(2) Is a focus on smart cosmetic technology an indulgent distraction from pressing environmental issues?

Here’s one of the comments raised online after the talk:

Unfortunately any respect due was undermined by his contempt for the massive environmental challenges we face.

Trivial contact lens / jewellery technology can hang itself, if our countryside is choked by yoghurt factory fumes.

The reference to jewellery took issue with remarks in the talk such as the following:

Miniaturisation will bring everyday IT down to jewellery size…

Decoration; Social status; Digital bubble; Tribal signalling…

In contrast, the talk positioned greater use of technology as the solution to environmental issues, rather than as something to exacerbate these issues. Smaller (jewellery-sized) devices, created with a greater attention to recyclability, will diminish the environmental footprint. Ian claimed that:

  • We can produce more of everything than people need
  • Improved global land management could feed up to 20 billion people
  • Clean water will be plentiful
  • We will also need less and waste less
  • Long term pollution will decline.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there are some short-term problems, ahead of the time when accelerating NBIC convergence can be expected to provide more comprehensive solutions:

  • Energy shortage is a short to mid term problem
  • Real problems are short term.

Where there’s room for real debate is the extent of these shorter-term problems. Discussion on the threats from global warming brought these disagreements into sharp focus.

(3) How should singularitarians regard the threat from global warming?

BalanceTowards the end of his talk, Ian showed a pair of scales, weighing up the wins and losses of NBIC technologies and a potential singularity.

The “wins” column included health, growth, wealth, fun, and empowerment.

The “losses” column included control, surveillance, oppression, directionless, and terrorism.

One of the first questions from the floor, during the Q&A period in the meeting, asked why the risk of environmental destruction was not on the list of possible future scenarios. This criticism was echoed by online comments:

The complacency about CO2 going into the atmosphere was scary…

If we risk heading towards an environmental abyss let’s do something about what we do know – fossil fuel burning.

During his talk, I picked up on one of Ian’s comments about not being particularly concerned about the risks of global warming. I asked, what about the risks of adverse positive feedback cycles, such as increasing temperatures triggering the release of vast ancient stores of methane gas from frozen tundra, accelerating the warming cycle further? That could lead to temperature increases that are much more rapid than presently contemplated, along with lots of savage disturbance (storms, droughts, etc).

Ian countered that it was a possibility, but he had the following reservations:

  • He thought these positive feedback loops would only kick into action when baseline temperature rose by around 2 degrees
  • In the meantime, global average temperatures have stopped rising, over the last eleven years
  • He estimates he spends a couple of hours every day, keeping an eye on all sides of the global warming debate
  • There are lots of exaggerations and poor science on both sides of the debate
  • Other factors such as the influence of solar cycles deserve more research.

Here’s my own reaction to these claims:

  • The view that global average temperatures  have stopped rising, is, among serious scientists, very much a minority position; see e.g. this rebuttal on Carbon Brief
  • Even if there’s only a small probability of a runaway spurt of accelerated global warming in the next 10-15 years, we need to treat that risk very seriously – in the same way that, for example, we would be loath to take a transatlantic flight if we were told there was a 5% chance of the airplane disintegrating mid-flight.

Nevertheless, I did not want the entire meeting to divert into a debate about global warming – “that deserves a full meeting in its own right”, I commented, before moving on to the next question. In retrospect, perhaps that was a mistake, since it may have caused some members of the audience to mentally disengage from the meeting.

(4) Are there distinct right-wing and left-wing approaches to the singularity?

Here’s another comment that was raised online after the talk:

I found the second half of the talk to be very disappointing and very right-wing.

And another:

Someone who lists ‘race equality’ as part of the trend towards ignorance has shown very clearly what wing he is on…

In the second half of his talk, Ian outlined changes in norms of beliefs and values. He talked about the growth of “religion substitutes” via a “random walk of values”:

  • Religious texts used to act as a fixed reference for ethical values
  • Secular society has no fixed reference point so values oscillate quickly.
  • 20 years can yield 180 degree shift
  • e.g. euthanasia, sexuality, abortion, animal rights, genetic modification, nuclear energy, family, policing, teaching, authority…
  • Pressure to conform reinforces relativism at the expense of intellectual rigour

A complicating factor here, Ian stated, was that

People have a strong need to feel they are ‘good’. Some of today’s ideological subscriptions are essentially secular substitutes for religion, and demand same suspension of free thinking and logical reasoning.

Knowledge GraphA few slides later, he listed examples of “the rise of nonsense beliefs”:

e.g. new age, alternative medicine, alternative science, 21st century piety, political correctness

He also commented that “99% are only well-informed on trivia”, such as fashion, celebrity, TV culture, sport, games, and chat virtual environments.

This analysis culminated with a slide that personally strongly resonated with me: a curve of “anti-knowledge” accelerating and overtaking a curve of “knowledge”:

In pursuit of social compliance, we are told to believe things that are known to be false.

With clever enough spin, people accept them and become worse than ignorant.

So there’s a kind of race between “knowledge” and “anti-knowledge”.

One reason this resonated with me is that it seemed like a different angle on one of my own favourite metaphors for the challenges of the next 15-30 years – the metaphor of a dramatic race:

  • One runner in the race is “increasing rationality, innovation, and collaboration”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a positive singularity
  • The other runner in the race is “increasing complexity, rapidly diminishing resources”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a negative singularity.

In the light of Ian’s analysis, I can see that the second runner is aided by the increase of anti-knowledge: over-attachment to magical, simplistic, ultimately misleading worldviews.

However, it’s one thing to agree that “anti-knowledge” is a significant factor in determining the future; it’s another thing to agree which sets of ideas count as knowledge, and which as anti-knowledge! One of Ian’s slides included the following list of “religion substitutes”:

Animal rights, political correctness, pacifism, vegetarianism, fitness, warmism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism

It’s no wonder that many of the audience felt offended. Why list “warmism” (a belief in human-caused global warming), but not “denialism” (denial of human-caused global warming? Why list “anti-capitalism” but not “free market fundamentalism”? Why list “pacifism” but not “militarism”?

One online comment made a shrewd observation:

Ian raised my curiosity about ‘false beliefs’ (or nonsense beliefs as Ian calls them) as I ‘believe’ we all inhabit different belief systems – so what is true for one person may be false for another… at that exact moment in time.

And things can change. Once upon a time, it was a nonsense belief that the world was round.

There may be 15% of truth in some nonsense beliefs…or possibly even 85% truth. Taking ‘alternative medicine’ as an example of one of Ian’s nonsense beliefs – what if two of the many reasons it was considered nonsense were that (1) it is outside the world (the system) of science and technology and (2) it cannot be controlled by the pharmaceutical companies (perhaps our high priests of today)?

(5) The role of corporations and politicians in the approach to the singularity

One place where the right-wing / left-wing division becomes more acute in the question of whether anything special needs to be done to control the behaviour of corporations (businesses).

One of Ian’s strong positive recommendations, at the end of his presentation, was that scientists and engineers should become more actively involved in educating the general public about issues of technology. Shortly afterward, the question came from the floor: what about actions to educate or control corporations? Ian replied that he had very little to recommend to corporations, over and above his recommendations to the individuals within these corporations.

My own view is different. From my life inside industry, I’ve seen numerous cases of good people who are significantly constrained in their actions by the company systems and metrics in which they find themselves enmeshed.

Indeed, just as people should be alarmed about the prospects of super-AIs gaining too much power, over and above the humans who created them, we should also be alarmed about the powers that super-corporations are accumulating, over and above the powers and intentions of their employees.

The argument to leave corporations alone finds its roots in ideologies of freedom: government regulation of corporations often has undesirable side-effects. Nevertheless, that’s just an argument for being smarter and more effective in how the regulation works – not an argument to abstain from regulation altogether.

The question of the appropriate forms of collaborative governance remains one of the really hard issues facing anyone concerned about the future. Leaving corporations to find their own best solutions is, in my view, very unlikely to be the optimum approach.

In terms of how “laissez-faire” we should be, in the face of potential apocalypse down the road, I agree with the assessment near the end of Jeremy Green’s blogpost:

Pearson’s closing assertion that in the end our politicians will always wake up and pull us back from the brink of any disaster is belied by many examples of civilisations that did not pull back and went right over the edge to destruction.


After the presentation in Birkbeck College ended, around 40-50 of the audience regrouped in a nearby pub, to continue the discussion. The discussion is also continuing, at a different tempo, in the online pages of the London Futurists meetup. Ian Pearson deserves hearty congratulation for stirring up what has turned out to be an enlightening discussion – even though there’s heat in the comments as well as light!

Evidently, the discussion is far from complete…

20 February 2013

The world’s most eminent sociologist highlights the technological singularity

It’s not every day that the world’s most eminent sociologist reveals himself as having an intense interest in the Technological Singularity, and urges that “Everyone should read the books of Ray Kurzweil”. That’s what happened this evening.

The speaker in question was Lord Anthony Giddens, one of whose many claims to fame is his description as “Tony Blair’s guru”.

His biography states that, “According to Google Scholar, he is the most widely cited sociologist in the world today.”

In support of that claim, a 2009 article in the Times Higher Education supplement notes the following:

Giddens trumps Marx…

A list published today by Times Higher Education reveals the most-cited academic authors of books in the humanities…

As one of the world’s pre-eminent sociologists, Anthony Giddens, the Labour peer and former director of the London School of Economics, will be used to academic accolades.

But even he may be pleased to hear that his books are cited more often than those of iconic thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.

Lord Giddens, now emeritus professor at LSE and a life fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, is the fifth most-referenced author of books in the humanities, according to the list produced by scientific data analysts Thomson Reuters.

The only living scholar ranked higher is Albert Bandura, the Canadian psychologist and pioneer of social learning theory at Stanford University…

Freud enters the list in 11th place. The American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and whose political books have a broader readership than some of his peers in the list, is 15th…

Lord Giddens is now 75 years old. Earlier this evening, I saw for myself evidence of his remarkable calibre. He gave an hour-long lecture in front of a packed audience at the London School of Economics, without any notes or slides, and without any hesitation, deviation, or verbal infelicity. Throughout, his remarks bristled with compelling ideas. He was equally competent – and equally fluent – when it came to the question-and-answer portion of the event.

LSE Events

The lecture was entitled “Off the edge of history: the world in the 21st century”. From its description on the LSE website, I had already identified it as relevant to many of the themes that I seek to have discussed in the series of London Futurists meetups that I chair:

The risks we face, and the opportunities we have, in the 21st century are in many respects quite different from those experienced in earlier periods of history. How should we analyse and respond to such a world? What is a rational balance of optimism and pessimism? How can we plan for a future that seems to elude our grasp and in some ways is imponderable?

As the lecture proceeded, I was very pleasantly impressed by the sequence of ideas. I append here a lightly edited copy of the verbatim notes I took on my Psion Series 5mx, supplemented by a few additions from the #LSEGiddens tweet stream. Added afterwards: the LSE has made a podcast available of the talk.

My rough notes from the talk follow… (text in italics are my parenthetical comments)

This large lecture room is completely full, twenty minutes before the lecture is due to start. I’m glad I arrived early!

Today’s topic is work in progress – he’s writing a book on the same topic, “Off the edge of history”.

  • Note this is a very different thesis from “the end of history”.

His starting point is in the subject of geology – a long way from sociology. He’s been working on climate change for the last seven years. It’s his first time to work so closely with scientists.

Geologists tend to call the present age “the Holocene age” – the last 12,000 years. But a geologist called Paul Crutzen recommended that we should use a different term for the last 200 years or so – we’re now in the Anthropocene age:

  • In this period, human activity strongly influences nature and the environment
  • This re-orients and restructures the world of geology
  • A great deal of what used to be natural, is natural no longer
  • Human beings are invading nature, in a way that has no precedent
  • Even some apparently natural catastrophes, like tsunamis and volcanoes, might be linked to impacts from humans.

We have continuities from previous history (of course), but so many things are different nowadays. One example is the impacts of new forms of biological threat. Disease organisms have skipped from animals to human beings. New disease organisms are being synthesised.

There are threats facing us, which are in no ways extensions of previous threats.

For example, what is the Internet doing to the world? Is it a gigantic new mind? Are you using the mobile phone, or is the mobile phone using you? There’s no parallel from previous periods. Globally connected electronic communications are fundamentally different from what went before.

When you are dealing with risks you’ve never experienced before, you can’t measure them. You’ll only know for sure when it’s too late. We’re on the edge of history because we are dealing with risks we have never faced before.

Just as we are invading nature, we are invading human nature in a way that’s unprecedented.

Do you know about the Singularity? (A smattering of people in the audience raise their hands.) It’s mind-blowing. You should find out about it:

  • It’s based on a mathematical concept
  • It’s accelerating processes of growth, rapidly disappearing to a far off point very different from today.

Everyone should read the books of Ray Kurzweil – who has recently become an Engineering Director at Google.

Kurzweil’s book makes it clear that:

  • Within our lifetimes, human beings will no longer be human beings
  • There are multiple accelerating rates of change in several different disciplines
  • The three main disciplines contributing to the singularity are nanotech, AI, and biotech
  • All are transforming our understanding of the human body and, more importantly, the human mind
  • This is described by the “Law of accelerating returns”
  • Progress is not just linear but geometrical.

This book opens our minds to multiple possibilities of what it means to be human, as technology penetrates us.

Nanotech is like humans playing God:

  • It’s a level below DNA
  • We can use it to rebuild many parts of the human body, and other artefacts in the world.

Kurzweil states that human beings will develop intelligence which is 100x higher than at present:

  • Because of merging of human bodies with computers
  • Because of the impact of nanotech.

Kurzweil gives this advice: if you are relatively young: live long, in order to live forever:

  • Immortality is no longer a religious concept, it’s now a tangible prospect
  • It could happen in the next 20-40 years.

This is a fantastic expansion of what it means to be human. Importantly, it’s a spread of opportunities and risk.

These were religious notions before. Now we have the real possibility of apocalypse – we’ve had it since the 1950s, when the first thermonuclear weapons were invented. The possibility of immortality has become real too.

We don’t know how to chart these possibilities. None of us know how to fill in that gap.

What science fiction writers were writing 20 years ago, is now in the newspapers everyday. Reading from the Guardian from a couple of days ago:

Paralysed people could get movement back through thought control

Brain implant could allow people to ‘feel’ the presence of infrared light and one day be used to move artificial limbs

Scientists have moved closer to allowing paralysed people to control artificial limbs with their thoughts following a breakthrough in technology…

…part of a series of sessions on advances in brain-machine interfaces, at which other scientists presented a bionic hand that could connect directly to the nerves in a person’s arm and provide sensory feedback of what they were holding.

Until now, neurological prosthetics have largely been demonstrated as a way to restore a loss of function. Last year, a 58-year-old woman who had become paralysed after a stroke demonstrated that she could use a robotic arm to bring a cup of coffee to her mouth and take a sip, just by thinking about it…

In the future…  it might be possible to use prosthetic devices to restore vision – for example, if a person’s visual cortex had been damaged – by training a different part of the brain to process the information.

Or you could even augment normal brain function in non-invasive ways to deliver the information.

We could learn to detect other sorts of signals that we normally don’t see or experience; the perceptual range could increase.

These things are real; these things are happening. There is a kind of geometric advance.

The literature of social scientists has a big division here, between doomsday thinkers and optimists, with respected thinkers in both camps.

Sir Martin Rees is example of first category. He wrote a book called “Our final century”:

  • It examines forms of risk that could destroy our society
  • Climate change is a huge existential risk – most people aren’t aware of it
  • Nanotech is another existential risk – grey goo scenario
  • We also have lots of weaponry: drones circulating above the world even as we speak
  • Most previous civilisations have ended in disaster – they subverted themselves
  • For the first time, we have a civilisation on a global scale
  • It could well be our final century.

Optimists include Matt Ridley, a businessman turned scientist, and author of the book “The rational optimist”:

  • Over the course of human civilisation there is progress – including progress in culture, and medical advances.

This is a big division. How do we sort this out? His view: it’s not possible to decide. We need to recognise that we live in a “high opportunity, high risk society”:

  • The level of opportunity and level of risk are both much higher than before
  • But risk and opportunity always intertwine
  • “In every risk there’s an opportunity…” and vice versa
  • We must be aware of the twists and tangles of risk and opportunity – their interpenetration.

Studying this area has led him to change some of his views from before:

  • He now sees the goal of sustainability as a harder thing than before
  • Living within our limits makes sense, but we no longer know what our limits are
  • We have to respect limits, but also recognise that limits can be changed.

For example, could we regard a world population of 9 billion people as an opportunity, rather than just a risk?

  • It would lead us to put lots more focus on food innovation, blue sky tech for agriculture, social reform, etc – all good things.

A few points to help us sort things out:

  1. One must never avoid risk – we live in a world subject to extreme system risk; we mustn’t live in denial of risk in our personal life (like denying the risks of smoking or riding motor cycles) or at an civilisational level
  2. We have to think about the future in a very different way, because the future has become opaque to us; the enlightenment thought was that we would march in and make sense of history (Marx had similar thoughts), but it turns out that the future is actually opaque – for our personal lives too as well as society (he wonders whether the EU will still exist by the time he finishes his book on the future of the EU!)
  3. We’ll have to learn to backcast rather than forecast – to borrow an idea from the study of climate change. We have to think ahead, and then think back.

This project is the grand task of social sciences in the 21st century.

One more example: the possibility of re-shoring of jobs in the US and EU:

  • 3D printing is an unbelievable technological invention
  • 3D printers can already print shoes
  • A printer in an MIT lab can print whole systems – eg in due course a plane which will fly directly out of the computer
  • This will likely produce a revolution in manufacturing – many, many implications.

Final rhetorical question: As we confront this world, should we be pessimists or optimists? This is the same question he used to consider, at the end of the talks he used to give on climate change.

His answer: we should bracket out that opposition; it’s much more important to be rational than either pessimist or optimist:

  • Compare the case of someone with very serious cancer – they need more than wishful thinking. Need rational underpinning of optimism and/or pessimism.

Resounding applause from the audience. Then commence questions and answers.

Q: Are today’s governance structures, at local and national levels, fit to deal with these issues?

A: No. For example, the he European Union has proved not to be the vanguard of global governance that we hoped it would be. Climate change is another clear example: twenty years of UN meetings with no useful outcome whatsoever.

Q: Are our human cognitive powers capable to deal with these problems? Is there a role for technology to assist our cognitive powers?

A: Our human powers are facing a pretty difficult challenge. It’s human nature to put off what we don’t have to do today. Like 16 years taking up smoking who can’t really see themselves being 40. Maybe a supermind might be more effective.

Q: Although he has given examples where current governance models are failing, are there any bright spots of hope for governance? (The questioner in this case was me.)

A: There are some hopeful signs for economic governance. Surely bankers will not get away with what they’ve done. Movement to address tax havens (“onslaught”) – bring the money back as well as bringing the jobs back. Will require global co-operation. Nuclear proliferation (Iran, Israel) is as dangerous as climate change. The international community has done quite well with non-proliferation, but it only takes one nuclear war for things to go terribly wrong.

Q: What practical advice would he give to the Prime Minister (or to Ed Miliband)?

A: He supports Ed Miliband trying to restructure capitalism; there are similar moves happening in the US too. However, with global issues like these, any individual prime minister is limited in his influence. For better or for worse, Ray Kurzweil has more influence than any politician!

(Which is a remarkable thing to say, for someone who used to work so closely with Prime Minister Tony Blair…)

4 February 2013

Responding to the call for a new Humanity+ manifesto

Filed under: BHAG, futurist, Humanity Plus, leadership, risks — David Wood @ 7:37 am

I’ve been pondering the call, on Transhumanity.net, to upgrade the Transhumanist Declaration.

This endeavour needs the input of many minds to be successful. Below, please find a copy of a submission from me, to add into the mix. I’ll welcome feedback!

Humanity is on the brink of a momentous leap forwards in evolution. If we are wise and strong, we can – and should – make that leap.

This evolutionary transformation takes advantage of rapidly improving technology – technology that arises from positive virtuous cycles and unprecedented interdisciplinary convergence. This technology will grant us awesome powers: the power to capture ample energy from the Sun, the atom, and beyond; the power to synthesise new materials to rejuvenate our environment and fuel our societies; the power to realise an unparalleled abundance of health, security, vigour, vitality, creativity, knowledge, and experience; the power to consciously, thoughtfully, proactively remake Humanity.

Through imminently available technology, our lives can be radically enhanced, expanded, and extended. We can be the generation that banishes disease, destitution, decay, and death. Our societies can become marvels of autonomy and inclusion, featuring splendid variety and harmony. We can move far beyond the earth, spreading ever higher consciousness in both inner and outer space. We can transcend our original biological nature, and become as if divine; we’ll be as far ahead of current human capabilities as current humans exceed the prowess of our ape forebears.

But technology is a two-edged sword. Alongside the potential for transcendent improvement lies the potential for existential destruction. We face fearsome perils of environmental catastrophe, unstoppable new plagues and pathogens, rampant unemployment and alienation, the collapse of world financial markets, pervasive systems of unresponsive computers and moronically intelligent robots that act in frustration to human desires, horrific new weaponry that could easily fall into the wrong hands and precipitate Armageddon, and intensive mechanisms for draconian surveillance and thought control.

Continuing the status quo is not an option. Any quest for sustainability of current lifestyles is a delusion. We cannot stay still, and we cannot retreat. The only way to survive is radical enhancement – moving from Humanity to Humanity+.

We’ll need great wisdom and strength to successfully steer the acceleration of converging technology for a positive rather than a negative outcome. We’ll need to take full advantage of the best of current Humanity, to successfully make the leap to Humanity+.

Grand battles of ideas lie ahead. In all these grand battles, smart technology can be our powerful ally – technology that can unlock and enhance our human capacities for insight, innovation, compassion, kindness, and solidarity.

We’ll need to transcend worldviews that insist on viewing humans as inherently diminished, incapable, flawed, and mortal. We’ll need to help individuals and societies rise above cognitive biases and engrained mistakes in reasoning. And we’ll need to accelerate a reformation of the political and economic environment, so that the outcomes that are rationally best are pursued, instead of those which are expedient and profitable for the people who currently possess the most power and influence.

As more and more people come to appreciate the tremendous attractiveness and the credibility of the Humanity+ future, they’ll collectively commit more of their energy, skills, and resources in support of realising that future. But the outcome is still far from clear.

Time is short, risks are high, and there is much to do. We need to open minds, raise awareness, transform the public mood, overturn prejudices, establish rights, build alliances, resist over-simplification, avoid the temptations of snake oil purveyors, dispel distractions, weigh up the best advice available, take hard decisions, and accelerate specific research and development. If we can navigate these slippery paths, with wisdom and strength, we will indeed witness the profound, glorious emergence of Humanity+.

20 December 2012

An absorbing, challenging vision of near-future struggles

nexus-75-dpiTechnology can cause carnage, and in the wake of the carnage, outrage.

Take the sickening example of the shooting dead of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. After that fearful carnage, it’s no surprise that there are insistent calls to restrict the availability of powerful automatic guns.

There are similar examples of carnage and outrage in the new science fiction novel “Nexus: mankind gets an upgrade”, by the noted futurist and writer Ramez Naam.

I met Ramez at the WorldFuture 2012 event in Toronto earlier this year, where he gave a presentation on “Can Innovation Save the Planet?” which I rated as one of the very best sessions in the midst of a very good conference. I’ve been familiar with the high calibre of his thinking for some time, so when I heard that his new book Nexus was available for download to my Kindle – conveniently just ahead of me taking a twelve-hour flight – I jumped at the chance to purchase a copy. It turned out to be a great impulse purchase decision. I finished the book just as the airplane wheels touched down.

The type of technology that is linked to carnage and outrage in Nexus can be guessed from the image on the front cover of the book – smart drugs. Of course, drugs, like guns, are already the source of huge public debate in terms of whether to restrict access. Events described in Nexus make it clear why certain drugs become even more controversial, a few short decades ahead, in this fictional but all-too-credible vision of the near future.

Back in the real world, public interest in smart drugs is already accelerating:

  • I hear more and more discussions when people talk about taking nootropics of one sort or another – to help them “pull an all-nighter”, or to be especially sharp and mentally focused for an important interview. These comments often get followed up by reflections on whether these drugs might convey an unfair advantage.
  • The 2011 film Limitless – which I reviewed in passing here – helped to raise greater public awareness of the potential of this technology.
  • Audience attendance (and the subsequent online debate) at the recent London Futurist event “Hacking our wetware, with Andrew Vladimirov”, convinced me that public appetite for information on smart drugs is about to greatly intensify.

And as discussion of the technology of smart drugs increases, so (quite rightly) does discussion of the potential downsides and drawbacks of that technology.

Nexus is likely to ratchet this interest even higher. The technology in the novel doesn’t just add a few points of IQ, in a transitory basis, to the people who happen to take it. It goes much further than that. It has the potential to radically upgrade humans – with as big a jump in evolution (in the course of a few decades) as the transition between apes and humans. And not everyone likes that potential, for reasons that the book gradually makes credible, through sympathetic portrayals of various kinds of carnage.

Nexus puts the ideas of transhumanism and posthumanism clearly on the map. And lots more too, which I shouldn’t say much about, to avoid giving away the plot and spoiling the enjoyment of new readers.

But I will say this:

  • My own background as a software engineer (a profession I share with Ramez Naam) made me especially attuned to the descriptions of the merging of computing science ideas with those of smart drugs; other software engineers are likely to enjoy these speculations too
  • My strong interest in the battle of ideas about progress made me especially interested in inner turmoil (and changes of mind) of various key characters, as they weighed up the upsides and downsides of making new technology more widely available
  • My sympathy for the necessity of an inner path to enlightenment, to happen in parallel with increasingly smart deployment of increasingly powerful technology, meant that I was intrigued by some of the scenes in the book involving meditative practices
  • My status as an aspiring author myself – I’m now about one third of the way through the book I’m writing – meant that I took inspiration from seeing how a good author can integrate important ideas about technology, philosophy, societal conflict, and mental enlightenment, in a cracking good read.

Ramez is to be congratulated on writing a book that should have wide appeal, and which will raise attention to some very important questions – ahead of the time when rapid improvements of technology might mean that we have missed our small window of opportunity to steer these developments in ways that augment, rather than diminish, our collective humanity.

Anyone who thinks of themselves as a futurist should do themselves a favour and read this book, in order to participate more fully in the discussions which it is bound to catalyse.

Footnote: There’s a lot of strong language in the book, and “scenes of an adult nature”. Be warned. Some of the action scenes struck me as implausible – but hey, that’s the same for James Bond and Jason Bourne, so that’s no showstopper. Which prompts the question – could Nexus be turned into a film? I hope so!

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